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Neighbo(u)r Addendum

By Thom Donovan

“The emotions are engaged
Entering the city
As entering any city.

We are not coeval
With a locality
But we imagine others are,

We encounter them.”
–from George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous”

For the current February/March issue of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, I wrote a review of Canadian poet Rachel Zolf’s fourth full-length book of poems, Neighbour Procedure (hot off the press with Couch House!). In my review of Zolf’s book, I discuss Zolf’s treatment of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and especially the ways that she frames the conflict through questions of “grievability” (a term Zolf takes up in relation to Judith Butler’s work), and of mediation (how the conflict is mediated by both popular media coverage and strategies of representation). In Zolf’s hands, Emmanuel Levinas’ question of the “neighbor” is radicalized by her positing (contra Levinas) the Palestinian as neighbor/Other. What would it mean, a la Levinas, for the Palestinian to put forth the infinite demand of the Other towards Israel and its allies? The demand for one not to be in place of the Other? The demand to not make the Other comprehensible—to have to go through a “progress of unknowing” as Zolf writes in the afterword to her book?

In Rachel Levitsky’s 2009 Ugly Duckling Presse book Neighbor, I find overlap with Zolf’s most recent book. Whereas Zolf is concerned to explore the problem of neighbor through a specific socio-political conflict, Levitsky does so through an allegorical, autobiographical writing in which national boundaries touch personal ones, and the local is always being related/regulated by geopolitical exigency (the war in Iraq, namely).

Something which attracts me to Levitsky’s book are the narrative qualities of the writing. How a sense of scene or episode is always erupting into philosophical/theological speculation and lyrical play. From the start of the book, there is an almost scholastic quality about Levitsky’s thinking, whereof she contemplates the “levels” in her head. Also from the start of the book, there is the sense that the voices of the book do not just belong to a singular person, but represent the person subjected in specific ways. That there is someone that calls itself “I” in Levitsky’s book is crucial. And that this “I” is self-conscious of itself in relation to neighbor(s) enables Levitsky to establish a continuous meditation on ethics, geopolitics, and sexual encounter/desire. The “I” of Levitsky’s book disjunctively narrates her (and our) own interpellation by local, national, and global functions of power. Neighbor as Other, but also as interstice of public/private, exterior/interior, becomes the site where person and subject cleave.

“Detachment is the thing
I create when I

Am not aware of the I
I am aware of.

Detachment is the thing
I make when I love.

Love is a more complicated thing
when I am speaking of my neighbor

who knows I’ve rejected him on numerous occasions
to whom I’ve been lately inexplicably nice.” (12)

If “distance” is what we establish via laws to keep each other from doing violence to one another (a la Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”; the hands of the two neighbors barbarically clutching the stones of the mending wall) then detachment is what allows Levitsky’s speaker to love. In detachment is a kind of ontological distance, a distance of singularities apart in their togetherness.

Reading this book I was thinking about New York City, and how, so many times when I’ve talked to Levitsky at readings and get togethers our conversations inevitably turn to what, for lack of a better term, we might call the politics of propinquity; which is to say, of living together, of having to be so close to one another in a place where space is a great commodity. A more candid and, frankly, comic George Oppen speaks in these poems, which are also so insistently about “being numerous.”

Reading Neighbor, I was also thinking about the poet kari edwards who died in the winter of 2007, and who Levitsky evokes in the first poem of the book, “Catastrophe, Utopia.” edwards, who was transgendered, brought an activism about queer and anti-capitalist politics to nearly everything “she” wrote (I am writing “she” here because, as I understand it, edwards came to accept feminine pronouns as a way of referring to herself in her late life after years of inventing and experimenting with alternatively engendering pronouns, thus refusing the symbolic violence of the given pronominal). In tribute to edwards, Levitsky’s book demands us to think and imagine ways that we are (and can be) together, and ways that togetherness always presents difficulties. Difficulties of property, and money, and desire. Difficulties of dispossession—of feeling like one doesn’t have power or agency—and possession—feeling we are (too) possessed by it. Likewise, in relation to edwards’ life and work, Levitsky’s work is an ardent investigation of the subject—how one is called into being as a subject, but also how subjectivity is displaced and divested of power. “Power ruptures at a thousand holes,” as Oppen wrote in his poem “Power, the Enchanted World.” Complicities are unavoidable—something to maintain constantly in our awareness and attention, and act in response to out of these awarenesses.

I think when people look back to the aughts, they will perceive a serious discourse about the public sphere and subjectivity taking place in small press poetry. The presses that will, in large part, have published this poetry in the United States will include Atelos, Belladonna, Chax, Edge, Krupskaya, Factory School/Heretical Texts, Leon Works, Litmus Press, O Books, Omnidawn, Palm Press, Roof, Sub Press, Ugly Duckling Presse (in terms of trade edition publishers). And among the books plowing the fields of this problem will stand-out Levitsky’s Neighbor, which moves by sections from public sphere (“Agora”), to mirror or larval stage (“Imago”), to nuclear family drama (“a Family Affair”), to singular plural (“The Desire of the Writer”).

Levitsky’s participation in a discourse is visible at the end of her book, where she evokes the names of many of the people with whom she had friendship and exchanges while she was writing the book over a six-year period. I am attracted to this kind of book-making practice, where a book becomes not just the expression of a singularity but a contact point with so many individuals and communal nexuses. There is a sense the book was worth waiting for. That it took incalculable correspondences and conversations and editorial excursions to nurture it into existence.

Comments (2)

  • On March 4, 2010 at 1:46 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Appreciate your post. I have had Neighbor on my desk for months now, wanting to write about it. And of course Levitsky and Zolf go together very well, particularly in these two books. The awareness of our disconnect is palpable in both instances. As Levitsky says:

    Detachment is the thing
    I create when I

    Am not aware of the I
    I am aware of.

    For Levitsky the act of writing is also communal, as you note in her careful placing and tracing of community in her notes. But there is here, an energetic delighting in the “I” and the interelations of the “I” that I found refreshing. A way in which the many references (social, political, theoretical) are so deeply, and confidently embedded that the jouissance, even in a self-interrogating mode, or here, where the emphasis is on the relation to the neighbour: the bad singing, the flag waving, the ways in which we don’t have to go far in order to test all of our belief… The text, how to say, it seems to move the ideas outward. This sense of spaciousness is something I am noticing more and more, and needing more and more.

    Poetry that moves out, not in, not circling around itself, in on itself, locking the doors behind it.

  • On March 7, 2010 at 11:00 pm Thom Donovan wrote:

    Thanks for this very substantial comment Sina. It has been so many days now that I am going to have to write you at Facebook just to let you know I have even responded to it. Spaciousness: yes! I’d like to hear more about your sense of this. I think I understand what you are saying. Where else or in who else’s work do you see this tendency towards spaciousness/outwardness? “But there is here, an energetic delighting in the “I” and the interelations of the “I” that I found refreshing.” Right on! I didn’t give nearly enough attention to the pleasure and humor of Rachel’s book. Which, like Rachel, can be extremely comic in very disturbing and unexpected and volatile ways.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010 by Thom Donovan.